Three conservative community college students sought to criticize left-wing authoritarianism. “But when administrators deemed their opinions inappropriate and offensive, the students found themselves facing an oppressive regime right on campus,” notes the Foundation for Individual Rights and expression.” On August 11, “students from a campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, sued California’s Clovis Community College,” based on a basic principle: “Public colleges cannot ban students’ flyers because administrators subjectively deem their political viewpoints inappropriate or offensive.”
“Clovis tried to put up barriers against our ideas because administrators didn’t like them,” noted YAF-Clovis founder Alejandro Flores. “But that’s the opposite of what a college should do. Our college should encourage us to discuss and sharpen our ideas, not shut down the conversation.”
Last November, he and fellow club members Daniel Flores and Juliette Colunga received permission from administrators to hang three flyers on bulletin boards inside the Community College’s academic buildings. “The flyers advocated for freedom and listed the death tolls of communist regimes.”
But emails obtained through the California Public Records Act revealed that shortly after the flyers went up, a Clovis administrator wrote that he would “gladly” take the flyers down, following complaints about their content from left-wing students. As FIRE notes,
The administrator also wrote that approving the flyers in the first place may have been a “mistake,” and that Clovis instead should have censored them under a policy that states: “Posters with inappropriate or offense [sic] language or themes are not permitted and will not be approved.”
On Nov. 12, Clovis President Lori Bennett personally ordered the flyers removed. After doing so, she searched for a reason to justify the viewpoint discrimination, inventing a brand new rule requiring flyers to double as club announcements.
“If you need a reason, you can let them know that [we] agreed they aren’t club announcements,” Bennett wrote. Clovis does not have a policy on the books that requires flyers to be club announcements. But with this excuse in hand, Clovis employees told student workers to remove the flyers.
Administrators later used that pretextual justification to stop the students from hanging a new set of five pro-life flyers — which the students submitted for approval in December — on the bulletin boards inside heavily trafficked campus buildings. Instead, administrators banished the flyers to a rotting “free speech kiosk” in a desolate part of campus.
“By relegating the flyers to a tiny kiosk, Clovis administrators tried to ensure that YAF’s opinions would never reach the rest of campus,” lamented FIRE attorney Jeff Zeman. “But FIRE’s here to amplify the voices that censors try to silence and make sure that all Clovis students are heard.”
Supreme Court rulings like Healy v. James (1972) make clear that public colleges such as Clovis are bound by the First Amendment. It violates the Constitution to treat student groups worse based on their viewpoint, as the Supreme Court made clear in ruling in favor of a Christian magazine in Rosemberger v. Rectors & Visitors of the University of Virginia (1995).
As FIRE observes, “Clovis’ vague policy banning ‘inappropriate’ or ‘offense [sic]’ themes — terms that could apply to just about anything — puts protected expression in jeopardy by allowing administrators to arbitrarily decide which opinions are inappropriate or offensive and which deserve to be heard.”
“Free speech is under attack on campuses across the nation, and the recent improper action by Clovis Community College constitutes yet another disappointing example,” said former Governor Scott Walker, the head of the Young America’s Foundation. “By attempting to stifle the speech of the conservative students in our Young Americans for Freedom chapter, Clovis administrators engaged in unlawful censorship in violation of the First Amendment.”
FIRE explains that
Today’s lawsuit is against the college president and three other administrators in their personal and official capacities. By suing these defendants as individuals, not just in their official capacities as Clovis administrators, FIRE and the YAF students not only seek to change the college’s unconstitutional policy and end its practice of censoring students based on viewpoint, but to hold college officials personally accountable for violating students’ clearly established free speech rights.
“Clovis’ policy and its application are illegal, and FIRE won’t let them get away with it,” said FIRE attorney Gabe Walters. “Clovis admins ‘gladly’ removed posters they found offensive, and we’re gladly suing them to protect Alejandro, Juliette, and Daniel’s rights — and those of all students.”
The lawsuit was filed by FIRE with Daniel Ortner of the Pacific Legal Foundation serving as local counsel.